Alcestis: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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Kalaen Ung and Jeremy Shranko

Can we squawk?

So I heard that Boston Court was a happening theatre and your humble and most obedient scribbler is always keen on expanding his theatrical horizons. I love plays by the ancient Greeks (the more eyeball-ripping-out tragic, the mo’ bettah!) thus when I received an invite to attend the premiere of Alcestis I set my drama-reviewing peripatetic butt off on an odyssey up to Pasadena to check it out. To be sure, although not exactly the Apollo Theater, the Boston Court Performing Arts Center is quite an impressive entertainment venue — but a funny thing happened on the way to this forum.

In this production inspired by Euripides’ Alcestis Nancy Keystone has adapted the Greek tragedy, first performed in 438 B.C. at the City Dionysia Festival, and turned it into a modern dress drama taking place today. Now, I don’t know about you, dear reader, but when I go to see a classic by Aristophanes, Sophocles, et al, such as the 2010 version of Aeschylus’ The Oresteia starring Tyne Daly and Delroy Lindo at the Getty Villa’s amphitheater, I want to see togas, Zeus dammit! In fact, I expect to see a freakin’ toga party onstage.

To be fair, this co-production by The Theatre @ Boston Court and Keystone’s Critical Mass Performance Group is full of imaginative mise-en-scene and stagecraft that ranges across the full spectrum of theatrical razzmatazz, including falling feathers, rear projections, extenuated shadows and ear splitting heavy metal music (holy Sirens!). The one-acter opens with the ensemble musing aloud about the meaning of life like a cacophonous Greek chorus, and there’s some good hoofing along with some laughs, especially during a banquet sequence and when our hero Herakles (a sidesplitting Nick Santoro) makes the scene. And Cambodian-Sicilian thespian Kalean Ung as the self sacrificing title character is quite fetching, capable of a high pitched voice and, might I add, has extremely expressive toes. Plus, this being (originally) from Greece, writer/director/scenic designer Keystone’s Alcestis is full of enough philosophical ruminations about the nature of existence to make an existentialist adjust his beret, light a Gauloises and swill a bottle of red.

To paraphrase the Bard: Toga or not toga? Transforming a period piece or classic into a modern dress work with contemporary costuming, dialogue, references and, perhaps, themes is tricky business. Sometimes it works, as with the brilliant adaptation of West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein and company, which reset Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from Renaissance-era Verona to 1950s Manhattan. Replacing the warring Capulets and Montagues with New York ethnic gangs and Juliet’s balcony with a tenement fire escape was nothing short of inspired genius.

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Lorne Greene, Kalaen Ung, and Nick Santoro

But does Alcestis’ alchemy from antiquity to modernity succeed? More often than not these updates of vintage works fall short. They seem to me to be more of an attempt to be a crowd pleaser that exploits a pre-established brand name the current hosts of the refurbished shows had no hand in creating, lo! those many moons ago. It’s a matter more of profitability than relevancy, in my opinion (and sometimes they don’t have to pay literary rights to long dead scribes). Verily, do Nancy Keystone and her cops really, truly believe they can improve upon Euripides?

Well, dear reader, you may think so and perhaps this reviewer is just being a narrow-minded fuddy-duddy. Perhaps. To be fair, the previously cited Mr. Santoro (who appeared in Argo — but not as an Argonaut) is a hoot as Herakles (that’s Hercules to all you Romans out there in amphitheater-land), a joy to behold. In his outlandish getup (cuddly kudos to costume designer Sarah Brown) and with his heavy metal licks, Herakles steals the show. He made sitting through the premiere of Alcestis a less tragic experience, as did the reception full of delicious Greek cuisine and pastries.

Nevertheless, your Greek tragedy-loving critic is looking forward to the Getty Villa’s late summer production of Prometheus Bound, presumably produced the way Aeschylus (my favorite of the playwrights of Hellenic antiquity) and company intended it: In the great outdoors, under the stars, in an amphitheater (even if Malibu doubles for the Mediterranean) — and with an Olympian cast clad in laurels, sandals and, yes, togas.

Alcestis plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. (dark July 17) and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., through July 28 at The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106. Free parking. Info: www.BostonCourt.org; (626)683-6883.

Illuminations: On Performance: Thursday, July 18. A post-show discussion with the cast of Alcestis.

On Devised Work: Sunday, July 7 at 1:15 p.m. (2:00 p.m. show time). A pre-show dialogue on devised work with Nancy Keystone, writer/director of Alcestis.

ed rampell

On Design: Thursday, July 11. A post-show discussion with designers from Alcestis.

On Direction: Sunday, July 14. A post-show discussion with Nancy Keystone, director of Alcestis.

On Theme: Sunday, July 21. A post-show dialogue on themes from the production.

Ed Rampell

Saturday, 6 July 2013

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